I guess I dedicated this paper to him unofficially when I wrote it...I couldn't have done it without his class. It's long (it's an official college paper) but I wanted to put it up in his honor.
A Scarlet Symbol
There are many examples of symbolism found throughout literature. Some examples are universal and used by many authors in a variety of works; while some are tied to a particular author or a particular work. For example, the use of water as a symbol for God or religion is usually a universal choice, and in "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, readers can assume that this seems to be true. Of course, Hawthorne frequently uses symbols in his works. "The way in which Hawthorne focuses on a particular object or image invites careful analysis." (Coale) Nathaniel Hawthorne is known for his use of objects and even people as symbols throughout this novel.
The first chapter takes readers to the prison-door, as noted in the chapter title. Hawthorne gives the door life when he states, "Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era." (Hawthorne 45) This iron and wood door has served as a symbol to the community of the fate of those inside. Weather quickly stripped the materials of the original appearance and now it seems to slowly decay. The cemetery located on the same ground as the prison is not so much a symbol as it is a foreboding presence. (45)
Located just outside the prison door is a sense of color in this first chapter, a wild rose-bush. This bush serves as a symbol of hope. It gives hope to the prisoner as he enters the door as it is the last bit of beauty that he sees, and hope to the condemned criminal that exits "in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him."(46) The bush existed through history. The question posed in the book is whether it remained out of luck in the wilderness or because it was supernaturally "created" by the footsteps of Ann Hutchinson, a saint. "It may serve to symbolize some sweet moral blossom or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow."(46) Whatever the case, this is one of the times that Hawthorne states outright that the rose-bush is symbolic. This symbol could have been used more throughout the novel. It is used again, briefly, when Hester and Pearl visit the Governor's house; but it could have been even more powerful if used at more places in the novel.
As discussed in the first paragraph, Hawthorne uses water in his novel. Going along with the assumption that water means God, one can assume a lot by Hester's choice to live in a house "looking across a basin of the sea." (73) Does Hester, consciously or subconsciously, want to get closer to God? The soil too sterile for cultivation and the remoteness of the location caused the previous owner to abandon it. This abandonment could serve as a symbol of the true lack of God in the Puritan community, as no one else chose to live there or build close to the water.
Water is mentioned again when Hester and Pearl go on an outing together. When Pearl goes off to play away from Hester, she is told by her mother to "not stray far. Keep where thou canst hear the babble of the brook." (163) This is another want of Hester, whether she is aware of it directly or not, to have her daughter know her Heavenly Father and be closer to God. Also, it shows that Hester still, on some level, trusts that God will look over her daughter when she cannot.
Sunshine is used symbolically as well. In the beginning, "...it seemed, to her sick and morbid heart, meant for no other purpose than to reveal the scarlet letter on her breast." (71) When Hester and Pearl go walking in the forest Pearl is able to dance and play in the sunshine but Hester is not. Pearl tells her mother, "The sunshine does not love you because it is afraid of something on your bosom. It will not flee from me; for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!" (160) When Hester tries to reach out and "catch" some of the sunlight it vanishes from her grasp. Sunshine would seem, at the first, to serve no other purpose than to highlight truth. This is most evident when Hester steps out of prison with Pearl in her arms and Pearl blinks in the sunlight and tries to hide from it. The sunlight is highlighting the truth of Hester's sin, her daughter. When the sunlight runs from Hester, it is a symbol of her being unable to admit the full truth of her situation. Later, Hester and Dimmesdale are sitting together and admit, together, what happened between them and their true feelings for each other. Upon this admission, sunshine floods the area. (177) Finally, sunshine can reach Hester and shine because she is truthful, not only to Pearl and Dimmesdale, but to herself. When Dimmesdale stands on the platform at night with Hester and Pearl it is the lack of sunlight, truth, which allows him to do so. It is interesting to see sunlight, a natural occurrence, used in such a powerful manner.
The forest is also a symbolic place. Because it is cut off from the rest of society and Puritan law, the forest is a place where witches gather to meet the Devil. Even while Hester and Pearl walk, Hester reminds her daughter to stay close to the brook, a symbol of God. The lack of sunshine is reminiscent of the lack of truth that is found in such a place. Hawthorne chooses to use this dark and mysterious place as a sort of sanctuary for Hester and Dimmesdale. It is this place that they choose to be honest about their true feelings; they feel that they can be honest in a place that is so removed from the rest of the world. This is the place where Hester feels that she can truly be herself. She lets down her hair, literally, and throws off the scarlet letter, a confine of society. These characters transform a place of sin and darkness into a place of truth and light. It is only when they are honest that sunshine pours into the area, making it light up.
The scarlet letter on Hester's breast is a multi-faceted symbol. The precursor to the actual novel, a chapter entitled "The Custom House," gives readers a fictional interpretation of Hawthorne discovering the badge of Hester Prynne. Even though it has faded from a once bright red, it still seems to have a veil of mystery surrounding it. When Hawthorne curiously puts it to his own breast, he feels a sensation of "burning heat as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron." (32) When the letter is introduced in the novel, it is not longer a symbol of mystery, but a symbol of shame. However, it is not as important a symbol as Pearl, which will be discussed later. The punishment of wearing a letter is not as great as the punishment of raising a child alone, but the community thinks so. Therefore, the letter also symbolizes the naivety of society's view on punishment. This symbol is gradually transformed into something totally different .
At first, it frightens Hester to think that the letter gives her knowledge of sin hiding in the hearts of others. It makes her wonder how many other women would be wearing the same scarlet letter if truth were told by all. (78) It is not long before a sort of mythology centers around the letter. Many stories and rumors are started. For example, it is believed by many that an Indian drew his arrow against the scarlet letter and it bounced off when he fired. The people believed that it gave her a sense of protection against the terrors of the outside world. Even Hester herself begins to "feel" the change that the letter provides. However, it does not make her more outgoing as a person might think. She wears her beautiful hair under a cap and dresses in muted colors with the red letter being the only source of color on her clothing. Her inward personality changes too. "All the light and graceof her character had been withered up by this red-hot brand" (342) But this does not keep her from doing good works and being kind to others. It just means that she does not have the old, apparently fun, personality that she used to. It begins to define her as a person. Everyone in town knows that the woman with the embroidered badge is Hester Prynne, but not in the bad way that it began. The townspeople are proud of her and her accomplishments. Hester is not the only one, it seems, with a scarlet letter. Upon his death, Dimmesdale, tears his clothes aside to reveal a scarlet "A" on his own breast. It is not revealed to readers, however, what caused the hideous mark. Whether it is self-inflicted, caused by Chillingworth's drugs and magic, or "the ever active tooth of remorse, gnawing from the inmost heart outwardly" (223) is never fully told and left up to the imagination.
Pearl, the daughter of Hester, is a special symbolic reminder used throughout the novel. "Little Pearl was a token more scarlet than the scarlet letter of [Hester's] guiltwith a birth presided over by the most intense conflict of love and fear in the mother's heart, nourished at a breast swelling with anguish, and surrounding with burning marks of its mother's shame in its daily life" (Loring)
From the beginning, Hester knows her daughter will not be good. "She knew that her deed had been evil; she could have no faith, therefore, that its result would be for good." (Hawthorne 80) Even when the girl is born without defects, in fact she was quite beautiful; she is a symbol of sin. "a being, perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder." (81) She is a reminder to her mother of the sin committed in her creation. "[She] makes the fact of adultery omnipresent." (Brown) The reminder is not only in her existence, but because she is always aware of, and makes known her awareness of, her mother's scarlet letter. Hester only deepens the reminder by dressing Pearl in all red with gold thread; the same colors used in the letter worn on her chest. "to create an analogy between the object of her affection, and the emblem of her guilt and torture." (90) It is as if she does wants, or maybe needs, that constant reminder to be evident. Or maybe she just wants her daughter to have a better sense of self than she does; so instead of dressing Pearl in the same drab colors she chooses for herself, she dressed her daughter in bright and lively colors to make her stand out. It can also be speculated that Hester dressed Pearl in the same colors as the badge of her shame to remind the father of part in the sin of creating the bastard child.
Shockingly enough, Pearl is not only a reminder to Hester but to Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, her illegitimate father. In a "vision" the clergyman sees Pearl "pointing her forefinger, first, at the scarlet letter on [Hester's] bosom, and then at the clergyman's own breast." When visiting the Governor's house, Pearl spies a rose-bush and cries for a red rose. This could be linked to the first rose-bush in the novel, at the prison door, and its representation of hope. Readers can assume that Pearl is desperately looking for hope in a life that is so lonely.
Even though Pearl is a symbolic reminder of sin throughout most of the novel, she is a saving grace to her mother for a brief moment. The townspeople believe that she will be a stumbling-block to her mother, so they argue that she should be taken away. (89) After a discussion with the governor and selected clergy, Hester is granted permission to keep her child. As she leaves, Mistress Hibbins, a noted witch in the community, invites Hester to a meeting in the forest with the Black Man, or the devil. Hester declines, answering "I must tarry at home, and keep watch over my litter Pearl. Had they taken her away from me, I would have gone with thee into the forest, and signed my name in the Black Man's book too" (103) So, it is easy to see that Pearl has saved her mother's soul from eternal damnation.
She also, later in the novel, is referred to as the symbol and connecting link between Hester and Dimmesdale. (135) The three stand during the dead of night on the same platform that Hester stood on when she was shamed before the town. Pearl stands between Hester and Dimmesdale and connects them to each other. This is the first time that the three are together as a "family" and Pearl seems to have been the deciding factor in this. At the end of the novel, Pearl is present at Dimmesdale's death and leans down to kiss him. This symbolizes her forgiveness to him because earlier in the book she wiped off a kiss that he gave her. When he dies, and the mystery of her birth is figured out, does she finally become "human" instead of the "imp" that society believed her to be and goes on to live a happy and productive life. This can be symbolic of one's relationship with God. Only when sin is acknowledged by the sinner can he be forgiven. So, it took Dimmesdale to acknowledge his sin, personified in Pearl, for the impish and sinful side of her to be "forgiven" and wiped away.
Another symbolic character is Hester's secret lover, Arthur Dimmesdale. "While shame only deals with [Hester], conscience is at work with him." (Trollope) This particular character represents what happens when guilt overcomes a person. "he presented the twofold nature which belongs to us as members of society; a nature born from ourselves and our associates, and comprehending all the diversity and all the harmony of our individual and social duties." (Loring)
His members of the parish (Hester's parish to be exact,) and readers are told that "the responsibility of [Hester's] soul lies greatly with [him]." (Hawthorne 61) As with anyone in this position, he is expected to be of especially upstanding character. It is ironic, therefore, that the man responsible for the souls of many would be the one that needs forgiveness. It seems that he begs Hester to reveal him as her counterpart in the shame, as he is unable to do it himself. "I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner" (62) When he does admit to it, later on, it is in front of the congregation. Even though he admits to being "vile" and "an abomination" the congregation sees this admission as a challenge to be better people. (126) After his death, his congregation will still remain true to him and talk of his life and death as a sort of parable to learn from. (224) "The tragedy of Dimmesdale lies in his defeat by evil through the temptation of cowardice and hypocrisy, which are sins." (Van Doren)
The other important person made into a symbol is Hester's husband, Roger Chillingworth. He is the epitome of revenge consuming a person. When readers first encounter the man, he is not as monstrously deformed as Hester sees him seven years later. (Reid) It seems that the ugly of his soul is coming out on his countenance; and being consumed with revenge begins to take a visible toll on the man. The people of the town remark that his expression goes from "calm, meditative, scholar-like" to "ugly and evil." (Hawthorne 112)
His title as a leech, or doctor, is even symbolic. Doctors were sometimes referred to as leeches because they used leeches in their healing. Chillingworth being called a leech is symbolic because of the way he seems to suck the life and well-being out of his charge, Dimmesdale.
The only other person aware of his true identity as Hester's husband is Hester. Chillingworth, however, quickly becomes aware of Dimmesdale's identity as Pearl's father. When he discovers the sign of Dimmesdale's hidden shame, which is revealed later in the novel, he is likened to Satan. "Had a man seen [him]he would have had no need to ask how Satan comports himself, when a precious human soul is lost to heaven, and won into his kingdom." (121) He is a lesson to readers to keep revenge and hatred from taking over a person's soul.
After returning to town from her stay in prison, Hester becomes a symbol to the townspeople. "The young and pure would be taught to look at herthe child of honorable parentswho had once been pureas the reality of sin." (72) Her embroidery, while beautiful, is still asked for by members of the town. However, it is never requested to cover the pure blushes of a bride. (75) In a modern age where adultery is quite commonplace, one might think that this viewpoint is a bit harsh. Readers must remember that this story takes place in a Puritan society. Puritans believed that the Bible was law. (Noll) The Ten Commandments clearly state "Thou shalt not commit adultery." (Deuteronomy 5:18) So it would be entirely acceptable to punish a woman who violated this God-given law. Along the same lines, it would also be acceptable to use her as an example of sinful practices. This use of a woman as a tragic heroine is classic with Hawthorne. "In Hawthorne's writings, the persons whose bodies and minds most suffer from experimentation and heritage are almost always female" (Brown)
Symbols are strategically placed throughout literature. By looking deeper into most pieces, a reader can find that the most innocent object or seemingly straightforward character is actually a symbol strategically placed by the author. Not every piece will have as much symbolism as Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," but the pieces that do are worth investigating.